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Unearned privilege and unearned pain


I had barely recovered from the journey home from the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, when four acts of terrorism shook the foundations of our country. As I struggled to absorb these harsh realities, I searched for an understanding of what had happened, why it had happened and how we were to respond.

This search has led me to a new appreciation of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Acts of Intolerance and of why, despite all the negative press, it is important that we convene events like the conference. I also came to a new understanding of the underlying values that prompted so many of us to participate in this event and a deeper appreciation of the lessons learned in Durban.

Whether listening to a panel of children of Roma, or Gypsy, descent describe their unfair treatment in a school system that most often classified them as “retarded,” or a South African 15-year-old girl unjustly accused of shoplifting, it became clear that the “unearned pain” suffered by children around the world is so often a result of centuries of systemic racism. In speaking about these long-term effects of racism, a panelist in Durban noted that two of the hardest things to understand or explain are unearned privilege and unearned pain.

And isn’t that exactly what we are grappling with in the light of the terrorist attacks? How will we come to terms with the unearned pain of the deceased and their grieving families and the unearned privilege of survivors? As we tell and retell the stories of Sept. 11, we struggle to comprehend the meaning of the events. I hope we reject the explanation that these events were a warning call or, worse, a punishment from God.

But how do we understand the story of the policeman who was in the World Trade Center only to finalize the details of his retirement and lost his life on his last day of work? Or the broker who lost his life on his first day of work? What sense do we make of a life saved because a father chose to take his daughter to kindergarten and arrived late only to find that all his colleagues had been killed? Or the life saved by the man who took a later-than-usual train to New York City because his two-week-old baby had kept him awake a good part of the previous night? These stories of unearned privilege and unearned pain challenge the very foundations of our belief. We cannot ignore them.

Each day of the conference in Durban, a special forum titled Voices was held, giving participants opportunities to hear the voices of victims of discrimination from around the world. They shared not only the horror of their discrimination and, in some cases, torture, but also their commitment to assist others with similar experiences or to work to end such discrimination and torture. These “voices” touched our minds and hearts and gave meaning to the somewhat tedious process of negotiating agreements around very contentious issues.

Since Sept. 11, so much of our attention has been focused on the individual stories of bravery and courage, of love and loss, of tragedy and death, of seemingly miraculous survival and determination to go on. We need to hear these “voices.” We need to tell these stories. It is through the power of story that the events can seep into our minds and hearts and evoke the kind of generous responses we have seen.

Another lesson learned in Durban is that the best hope for an end to xenophobia is solidarity. When the government of India protested that the issue of the dalit, or low-caste “Untouchables,” ought not to be on the agenda since it was an internal matter to their country, the people of South Africa protested. Why? Because now, many years after the fact, they are able to see clearly that without external pressure, South Africa never would have rid itself of apartheid.

Not only did they rid themselves of apartheid, but the people of South Africa were also able to stand tall and proudly host a world conference against racism, something that would have been unimaginable 15 year ago. Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, thanked those assembled because “they did not stand aside when crimes against humanity were raging in South Africa.”

Since Sept. 11 we have seen a rise in cases of overt xenophobia in our own country. A new racial profiling is occurring. A woman from the Middle East recently shared how ashamed she was to hear herself saying, “but I’m not Muslim,” as if discriminating against her would be tolerable if she were a Muslim. A black woman shared the same kind of feeling when she said to her husband, after seeing the police stop and question people who appeared to be Middle Eastern, “Thank God, we’re black.”

We have also seen creative responses to this xenophobia. In Chicago there were reports of area residents forming a human chain around a mosque so that the Friday prayer of its members could continue uninterrupted. Many who never heard of Sikhs before Sept. 11 can now explain the origin of their religious beliefs and how they differ from Muslims, thanks to the educational efforts that have been undertaken to counter some of the xenophobia.

At the opening ceremony for the Conference in Durban, Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, challenged us with these words: “This is no time to be small-minded, this conference calls for a generosity of spirit.” And it did. The days were long, security was tight and negotiations seemed endless, and sometimes they failed. But the nongovernmental organizations worked until 4 a.m., and the government officials stayed an extra day to finish their task.

And now, once again, our generosity of spirit is challenged. As in Durban, we need to be constantly reaching across boundaries of ethnicity, race and language to build consensus. We need to read, reflect, pray and grapple with the issues of the day. Our first reactions to the events of the Sept. 11 attacks cannot be our final reactions.

A black woman in Durban told a predominately white audience that our efforts must move beyond learning black history and leaving our own lives unexamined. This was a call to examine our “unearned privilege.” Yes, we must come to know the “unearned pain” of black Americans by learning about their history and their present experience. But we must also acknowledge that our status as white Americans is not unrelated.

This same concept applies to our reactions to the violence and terrorism of the last month. We seek to understand its roots and its causes. But we must also examine our own lives and the life of our country to root out covert forms of violence and terrorism.

When he arrived in Durban, former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was as exuberant as ever. Although he did not have an official role to play, it was most fitting that he be present at a time when South Africa was so proud to host the nations of the world in the “new South Africa.” At a press conference, Tutu noted that he is often accused of being a utopian. To this, his response is simple: “I am a utopian. God is a utopian, so I am in good company.” If this is the view of a man who saw his people through times of unbearable pain and suffering, then perhaps we, too, are called to join in that “good company” as we struggle to imagine a future after Sept. 11, 2001.

Sister of Notre Dame Eileen Reilly coordinates Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation efforts for the Wilton, Conn., province of her congregation. She attended the World Conference Against Racism as one of the three nongovernmental organization representatives for her order.

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001